Note: This sermon was preached in 2 parts which are combined here.
Have you ever experienced familiarity blindness? A lot of us develop familiarity blindness with one thing or another—that condition where you know something so well that you actually stop seeing it. The upshot of it is that the next time you do take a hard look at that familiar whatever it is, you see all kinds of things that you hadn’t noticed before.
In my office at home I have a black and white photograph, a portrait of my grandparents—my mother’s mom and dad. That picture was taken the year I was born, so I’ve been seeing it my entire life. My grandmother, the woman in that picture, died nine days after my first birthday, so a lot of my impression of her came from that photograph. As a kid, I always thought she must have been kind of stern and austere—that was how the picture struck me. But the other day, I took a moment to look at it again from a slightly different angle, and I realized that she is actually smiling ever so slightly, and her eyes look very loving, gentle and understanding. Now that I was really looking at her picture, I also realized that there was something strikingly familiar about her eyes, and then it suddenly dawned on me that I was seeing my mother’s eyes in this picture of her mother. That smile, those gentle eyes had always been there in the photograph, but I hadn’t seen them because of familiarity blindness.
I think it’s fair to say that many of us have a kind of familiarity blindness with the parables of Jesus in general and this one in particular, and I shared with you last week how Dr. Amy-Jill Levine’s amazing book, Short Stories by Jesus, helped me see this familiar story in a new way.
We talked last week about the lawyer who tries to trap Jesus into saying something that can be used against him. We talked about his trick question about inheriting eternal life and how Jesus turned the tables with a trick question of his own but amplified it with an even more important question when he asked, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?”
That first question, “what is written in the Law,” was a red herring. Torah, the Law, doesn’t say anything at all about eternal life. The Law of Moses isn’t interested in life after death but it is vitally concerned with how we live here and now. The really important question is the second one Jesus asks the lawyer: How do you read it? That question is just as important for us today as it was then. Maybe even more so.
The lawyer responded to Jesus by quoting a mashup of the Shema from Deuteronomy and the Golden Commandment from Leviticus: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” “That’s correct,” said Jesus, “Do that and you will live.”
The bottom line is love. Love God, and love your neighbor as you love yourself. Do that and you will live. Love is the key to an abundant life.
It sounds simple. The problem, though, is that this commandment to love is all inclusive, and there are some people we really don’t want to love.
I think the lawyer in this story is honest enough to realize that about himself. He knows there are some people—you know, “those people”—that he will never love, and he suspects that this is true for everyone standing there listening to Jesus. Luke says he wanted to justify himself. He wanted to make himself look right in the eyes of all those listening. But he also wanted to maybe find a loophole. Surely Jesus can’t mean that he has to love everybody, because, you know, there are some people—those people—who have clearly demonstrated that they are not on our side. Are we supposed to love them?
So he asks another question: “And who is my neighbor?”
In the context of law, the question about who is a neighbor has legal merit. After all, good fences make good neighbors. But in the context of love it’s irrelevant.
So Jesus redirects with a story.
A man travelling on the road from Jerusalem down to Jericho is violently assaulted by robbers. They don’t just rob him, they strip him and beat him so badly that he’s half dead. So there he is half dead at the side of the road. A priest happens by and does nothing to help the poor victim who is lying there bleeding. He passes by on the other side of the road. He gives the wounded man a wide berth. Next a Levite comes by. He also passes by on the other side of the road and does nothing to help the wounded stranger.
At this point, those listening to Jesus tell this story are shocked and the lawyer has to be wondering where this is going. For them, it’s unthinkable that a priest and a Levite would pass by without helping. The Law is very clear on this. They are required them to help! That would be their duty and it would take precedence over any other duty or obligation. Even if the wounded man turned out to be dead, they had a responsibility to care for his body.
The people listening to Jesus would have been shocked. But they are about to be utterly scandalized. Because the hero of the story turns out to be a Samaritan.
It’s hard for us to imagine how much the Jews hated the Samaritans. And vice versa. There antagonism between these two peoples went back centuries and was all the more intense because they were so closely related.
We traditionally call this parable the story of the Good Samaritan, but in the minds of those who were listening to Jesus, the words “good” and “Samaritan” would never go together. It was an oxymoron. Samaritans were the enemy. The people listening to Jesus as he tells this story might have thought, “If I were the man in the ditch, I would rather die than admit that I was saved by a Samaritan.” In their minds, Samaritans were something less than fully human.
So how did things get to be that way between the Jews and the Samaritans? Well, centuries before Jesus, in the time of Jacob, Samaria was called Shechem, and it was a Prince of Shechem who raped Jacob’s daughter, Dinah. In the time of the Judges, the false judge Abimelech, who murdered all his rivals, came from Shechem. For a time, Shechem became part of the united kingdom of Israel under David and Solomon, but after Solomon died, the Northern Kindom of Israel—which had been Shechem—broke away and a kind of low-grade civil war broke out that continued for generations. When the Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom which was now called both Israel and Ephraim, they brought in people from other conquered kingdoms to resettle and then renamed the land Samaria after the capital city. That’s also when the people of Judah began to refer to Samaritans with a kind of racial slur, calling them “the people with 5 fathers.” But the thing that the people of Judah found absolutely unforgiveable forever and ever amen, was that when they returned to Jerusalem after their time of captivity in Babylon, Sanballat, the governor of Samaria, joined forces with other people in the region and attacked them to try to stop them from rebuilding the city wall and the temple.
For their part, the Samaritans called themselves the Shamerim, meaning “guardians” or “observers” of the Law. They had built their own temple on Mt. Gerizim and they had their own version of Torah, which they insisted was the “true” version. They believed that only Torah—their Torah, of course—contained the word of God and they did not include the writings and the prophets among the books they regarded as holy.
For Jews, Samaritans were the ultimate “other.” For Jesus to cast the Samaritan as the benevolent hero was almost beyond belief. It would be like an ultra-orthodox Jew being saved by a Hamas Palestinian. To bring it closer to home, it would be like someone wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt being saved by someone wearing the Confederate stars and bars and a red MAGA baseball cap.
Who would it be for you? Who is that ultimate “other” who, in your mind, only just barely qualifies as a real person? Who is it who, in your mind, seems to be so radically different from you that there’s really no point in even talking to them? Or maybe there’s someone who sees you that way. How would you feel if it was one of those people who pulled you out of the ditch?
The lawyer had asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus reframed his question. Jesus wants us to understand that the question is not “who” merits my love or even “from whom” should I expect love. As Amy-Jill Levine wrote, “The issue for Jesus is not the ‘who,’ but the ‘what,’ not the identity but the action.” Love—loving God, loving your neighbor, loving yourself—is revealed in action. Love does not exist in the abstract; it must be enacted.
The Priest and the Levite did not act in love even though their law and duty commanded that they should. In his sermon on this parable shortly before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King, Jr. had an explanation for why they did not help: “I’m going to tell you what my imagination tells me. It’s possible these men were afraid… And so the first question that the priest and the Levite asked was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ … But then the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”
The Samaritan gave first aid to the man at the side of the road. He put him on his donkey and took him to the nearest inn where he could receive more help. He paid the innkeeper two days wages to take care of the wounded man and then gave him a promise that amounted to a blank check. “Take care of him,” he said, “and when I come back, I will repay you whatever you spend.”
“Which of these three,” Jesus asked the lawyer, “was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer couldn’t even bring himself to say, ‘the Samaritan.’ I imagine there was a long pause before the lawyer finally said, “The one who showed him mercy.”
Mercy. It’s an important detail here at the end of the parable, a well-chosen word. In both Greek and Hebrew, the word we translate as mercy can also mean “kindness.” It is also a covenant word in Hebrew. It signifies a shared bond of common humanity in the eyes of and under the Law of God. It is an acknowledgement that we “are of the same kind.” The Samaritan showed mercy. Kindness, a word that takes us back to the prophet Micah: “God has told you, O Mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness…mercy…kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
“Go and do likewise,” said Jesus to the lawyer. And to us.
In our country today, we find ourselves living in a culture scarred by cycles of division, antagonism, conflict, and even violence. In this parable, Jesus is telling us that these spirals of perpetual antagonism can be broken with kindness. The question that Jesus wants us to wrestle with is this: Can we learn to treat even our enemies, the “Samaritans” in our lives, in ways that acknowledge their humanity? Can we dare to see them in ways that acknowledge their potential to do good? Can we can bind the wounds of those “others” and dare to imagine that they would do the same for us?
When we encounter each other on the road full of bandits and other dangers, will we be blinded to each other by our familiar stereotypes, or will we step outside of the roles we’ve cast for each other to show kindness and be the good neighbor?